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Gear up for Horse Ownership

A guide to the items you and your horse will need to get started together.

By Elizabeth Moyer | Horses USA 2012

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From the Pages of Horses USACongratulations on becoming a horse owner! Now that you’ve completed your search for the perfect equine partner, you’ll need to get outfitted for horse ownership. If you enjoy shopping, you’ll be in your element because there’s plenty of tack, equipment and apparel needed to ride and enjoy your new horse.

Halter & Lead Rope
A well-fitting halter and lead rope are the first and most essential items for everyday horse handling. Halters come in a variety of materials, including leather, nylon and knotted nylon or cotton rope styles.

Breakaway Halter
A leather breakaway makes a nylon halter safer for turnout. Photo: Leslie Potter
Leather is the most expensive and traditional choice, and while it is sturdy and long-lasting, it will still break in an emergency if your horse pulls back or becomes trapped. This breakability can be an important factor in preventing injury. Nylon is affordable and extremely durable, but keep in mind that it will not release in an emergency. Your horse should not be turned out in his field or left in his stall wearing a nylon halter. Breakaway styles made of nylon with a leather crownpiece are a good compromise. Rope halters are favored by many natural horsemanship programs for training purposes.

The halter must fit your horse properly. If it looks crammed on his head and is buckled on the very last hole, it’s too small. If it’s sagging, slipping off his head or sliding sideways into his eyes, it’s too big. When adjusted with the buckles on the middle hole, the noseband should lie just beneath the cheekbone, or a few inches below.

A lead rope made of cotton or synthetic braided material is comfortable to handle when leading your horse, and can be tied in a horseman’s safety knot—the quick-release knot. Look for sturdy hardware and quality construction. It's a good idea to have a spare lead rope and halter handy in case one breaks or goes missing.

Grooming Kit
Next on your list of essentials is a grooming kit. You’ll need a hoof pick to clean your horse’s feet, and an assortment of brushes to care for his coat, mane and tail. The basic grooming tools include a rubber curry comb and body brush with stiff or medium bristles for cleaning power, and another brush with soft bristles to bring out the shine and use on sensitive areas like the face and legs. For the mane and tail, add a vented or paddle brush with pin bristles, wide-tooth comb and a good mane and tail detangling product. You may also want a small metal pulling comb to shorten and thin your horse’s mane, and clippers to tidy his look. A bucket or tote box will hold all your grooming tools and is easily portable.

You can assemble a basic bath kit for your horse with equine shampoo and conditioner, a 2-gallon bucket to mix up suds, a large sponge, and a sweat scraper to remove excess water from your horse’s coat. Old towels are also handy for a quick wipedown.

Winter horses
Some horses do fine without a blanket in the winter while others need some extra help staying warm. Photo: Leslie Potter
Seasonal Horse Clothing
Your horse’s blanket wardrobe needs depend on his housing arrangements, the thickness of the winter coat he grows and the weather where you live.

Horse blankets come in a variety of warmth levels, in turnout or stable styles. A turnout blanket is designed with sturdy fabric and features so it can be worn out in the field. These are usually waterproof and cut to allow freedom of movement while staying securely in place. Stable blankets are meant to be worn in a stall and are not designed to withstand the elements and hard wear and tear of pasture life.

When shopping for blankets, you’ll see the term “denier” used to denote the strength of outer fabric materials used for blankets, such as polyester or nylon. The higher the denier, the sturdier the fabric. Look for waterproof, breathable technology to keep your horse dry and comfortable. Warmth levels are designated by fill weight, indicating the amount of polyfill in the blanket. A light blanket, sometimes called a sheet, has little or no filling, while mid-weight and heavyweight styles have progressively more filling to provide warmth.

A lightweight waterproof sheet for protection from wind and precipitation is useful in most climates. A mid-weight blanket (around 100 to 200 grams of fill weight) is also appropriate for most climates. For cold climates, add a heavyweight blanket (around 300 or more grams of fill). Many blanket styles have optional detachable neck covers that can be purchased to keep your horse warm and dry from head to tail.

To find the correct blanket size for your horse, measure from the center of the chest around the widest part of the hindquarters, up to the edge of the tail. Horse blankets are typically sized in 2- or 3-inch increments, with 72 to 84 inches being the standard size range.

An ill-fitting blanket can cause rubs and sores from the pressure of a tight fit, or the shifting of a blanket that’s too large. A blanket that’s too big is also dangerous because a horse can step on it or get a foot caught in the straps. Find more blanketing tips at HorseChannel.com/Blankets.

Another item you may find useful in the winter is a cooler. This loose-fitting blanket made of wool or fleece wicks moisture away from your horse to help him dry off after a bath or hard workout, while preventing him from becoming chilled. In the summer, a mesh fly sheet and fly mask help keep bothersome bugs off your horse.

Checking Saddle Fit
These basic saddle fit checkpoints are applicable for both English and western saddles. Keep in mind that saddle fit is ever-changing, based on your horse’s physique. If your horse gains or loses significant weight or muscle, his once perfect saddle may no longer fit so perfectly.
  1. Wither Clearance
    Place the saddle on your horse’s back without a pad. Check that the front of the saddle is not touching your horse's withers. A three- to four-finger space usually indicates good clearance. Less than that means the saddle is probably too wide, and more may indicate that it is too narrow, possibly pinching his withers. Also check for excess pressure or pinching in the shoulder area.
  2. Balance
    Step back and look at the saddle from the side. It should look fairly balanced from front to back. The height of the horn/pommel in front and the cantle in the back may be visually deceptive, depending on the design of the particular saddle, so focus your eye on the lowest point of the seat, which should be parallel to the ground.
  3. Spine and Back
    Next, check the way the panels that run lengthwise underneath the saddle rest against the top of the horse’s back. The center channel underneath the saddle should clear the horse's spine on either side—check the view from the back.

    Pressing down on the seat to simulate the weight of a rider, run your other hand underneath. The panels should make even contact with the horse’s back to distribute the rider’s weight equally. If there are gaps in the middle, the saddle is “bridging” and will cause discomfort by concentrating excessive pressure in the front and rear where it touches the horse’s back.

    If the fit looks good so far, girth up the saddle and run through the checkpoints again.
  4. Adding a Rider
    If the saddle passes inspection up to this point, it’s time to get on for a test ride. When you are seated in the saddle, double-check that it still clears your horse’s withers by at least two or three fingers. Assess how the saddle feels to you—a good fit should feel balanced and stable on the horse. Note how your horse responds to the saddle as well, and look for any signs of resistance or discomfort. If the horse moves freely and happily, you may have found the best seat in the house!
For the Horse
Tack is a general term for riding equipment. Your basic needs include a bridle and saddle, saddle pad and a girth or cinch.

Bridles come in a standard size for the average horse, referred to as full or horse size, as well as cob size for smaller horses and oversize for larger horses, such as warmbloods. There are also specialty sizes for ponies and draft horses. English bridles typically come with reins. Western headstalls and reins may be sold separately, or as a package that often includes a matching breast collar. Bits are usually sold separately.

Selecting the right type of bit for your horse is important for good communication between horse and rider. The various mouthpieces act in different ways, on different parts of the horse’s sensitive mouth. Horses are all individuals and can have very different reactions to the same bit. It may take some experimentation to find a bit that your horse goes happily in. To begin with, ask what bit your horse was previously ridden in. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best bit for you to use, but it will give you a starting point.

Bit designs range from mild to very severe pieces of hardware. In general, thinner bits are more severe than thicker bits. Twists in the metal, high ports in the center and long shanks also increase severity. However, a bit’s action also depends greatly on the rider’s hands and how skillfully it is used. Even a gentle bit can cause pain if the rider is heavy handed.

There are two main categories of bits: direct action and leverage bits. Direct action bits, such as the snaffle, work directly on the horse’s mouth and do not amplify pressure. Leverage bits such as the curb bit have shanks and other features, including a curb chain, that increase the pressure the horse feels from the reins, and also apply pressure behind the poll and chin. To learn more about different bits and how they work, visit the bit guide at HorseChannel.com/Bits.

Bits come in different widths, so whatever bit you purchase, you will need to make sure it fits your horse’s mouth properly. Too small and it will pinch the lips. Too big and it will slide through the mouth. You can measure your horse’s mouth using a piece of string about a foot long. Place the string across your horse’s mouth where the bit would lie and mark where it meets the corners of his lips. Then, measure the string and add a half-inch to provide some ease on each side.

Saddle Shopping
A saddle must fit both horse and rider. An ill-fitting saddle can cause your horse physical pain or injury if it pinches or rubs. Often, this pain can result in misbehavior and resistance, such a bucking, kicking out and reluctance to move forward, or simply poor performance.

A saddle that is not well-suited to your size and build will make it a struggle to ride in a properly balanced position. If you find yourself uncomfortably pitched forward on the front of the saddle, or tilted back in a “chair seat” where you can’t get your legs under you, odds are that your saddle is hindering your riding, rather than helping.

For the rider, seat sizes are measured in inches. Saddles come in different widths to fit horses of varying conformation. English saddles are sized on a narrow, medium, wide or extra-wide frame called a “tree.” Western saddle widths are often described as having semi or full Quarter Horse bars, which translates to medium or wide tree, respectively.

Finding the right saddle may take some trial and error, so make sure you can try the saddle out and return it if it doesn’t fit. “Checking Saddle Fit” (pg. 49) offers basic instructions, but if this is your first saddle purchase, an experienced eye is helpful. Your instructor, knowledgeable tack store staff or other savvy horse person can guide you through the process. You may also be able to find a professional saddle fitter to assist you.

Girths & Cinches
An English girth or western cinch is a key piece of equipment to hold your saddle in place. Materials vary and include leather, nylon with fleece lining, cotton or mohair string, and neoprene or other synthetics, but the girth/cinch style needs to match the billet or rigging set-up on your saddle.

To measure for an English girth, run a cloth measuring tape from the middle holes of the billet straps where the girth will attach, under the horse’s belly to the midpoint of the billets on the other side—this will give you the girth size in inches.

For a western cinch, measure from the metal rigging dee (the large metal ring on the lower edge of the saddle) on each side and subtract 10 inches to find your horse’s size. The other parts of a western saddle’s cinch attachments—the off billet and latigo —are usually included with the saddle.

Saddle Pads
A saddle pad adds a layer of protection between the horse’s back and the saddle. A pad can help keep the saddle from shifting and protects the underside of the saddle from sweat and dirt. It’s a good idea to have at least two saddle pads so you can let them dry out completely between uses. If you compete, it’s nice to have a pad reserved just for shows to keep it clean and avoid everyday wear and tear.

There are many types of saddle pads available. English riders usually favor square quilted cotton pads for schooling, since they are easily laundered. A smaller pad of fleece or other material can be used over it for extra cushioning.

Popular with western riders, fleece and felt pads can feature a wool top, often in a decorative color or pattern. Therapeutic features may be incorporated into the core of the pad.

For both English and western riders, therapeutic pads offer additional shock absorption using wool, foam, gel or other high-tech materials. Some specialty pads are designed to correct minor saddle imbalances.

Helmet Fit Checkpoints
  • When you place the helmet on your head, it should not be loose or uncomfortably tight. It should fit snugly with even pressure all around. The helmet should sit level on your head, right above your eyebrows. Shake your head up and down and side to side—the helmet should stay in place. Adjust the chinstrap right under your chin, with enough space to slide two fingers in between, or yawn comfortably.
  • You may need to try several styles or brands of helmets to find the one that fits your head shape the best.
  • When you try on helmets, remember to style your hair the way you wear it when riding. If you tuck your hair up under the helmet, you may need a larger size than if you wear your hair down.
  • Never buy a used helmet. If it has been involved in a fall, the protective material inside may be compromised, even if no damage is visible from the outside. For this reason, if your helmet takes any impact in a fall, it should be replaced. Some manufacturers will offer you a discount on a replacement. Check the policy when you make your purchase, and keep your receipt or any other paperwork necessary.

For a step-by-step helmet fit guide, click here.

Protective Legwear
For the active equine, it’s a good idea to invest in leg protection. Splint boots protect your horse’s legs from bumps and scrapes and are easy to put on. Support boots are designed to provide additional protection for athletic horses, with an extra strap underneath the fetlock. Other styles of boots offer sport-specific protection for jumping, cross-country, reining, et cetera. Polo wraps provide leg protection with a custom wrap fit, but you will need to learn how to apply them correctly. For horses that tend to overreach with their hind legs, bell boots protect the front heels and help prevent pulled shoes.

For the Rider
The basic safety equipment every rider needs are boots and a helmet. Helmet use has long been accepted as part of English riding, but riders of all disciplines are now recognizing the importance of protective equestrian headgear. Styles and designs now exist for western and trail riders, too. Whatever style of helmet you choose should be ASTM/SEI approved, indicating that it meets safety standards. Unlike bicycle helmets or other safety headgear, equestrian helmets are designed and tested specifically to protect riders in riding-related accidents. To make sure you are fully protected, it’s important that the helmet fits properly and is always worn with the chinstrap fastened and adjusted correctly.

Riding boots should have a flat sole and low heel (between 1 to 2 inches) to keep your foot from sliding through the stirrup and getting stuck. Short riding boots, referred to as paddock boots by the English rider, are comfortable and practical. You can wear half-chaps with paddock boots protect your lower legs from chafing by the stirrup leathers. Half-chaps are affordable and easier to fit than tall English boots. For western riders, traditional cowboy boots are a functional—and fashionable—favorite, as well as short “lacer” or pull-on “roper” style boots.

Building your riding wardrobe and acquiring all the tack your horse needs may seem like a daunting task. However, with the help of knowledgeable equestrian friends and your favorite tack retailer, you’ll be well outfitted in no time.

Further Reading
Grooming Supplies Checklist
How to Correctly Fit an Equestrian Helmet
Horse Blanket Central
Online Tack and Equipment Guide

Elizabeth Moyer is the editor of Horse Illustrated magazine.


This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Horses USA. Click here to purchase the most recent issue.

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